“Cautious optimism” is probably the concept that best summarises the atmosphere in the Spanish camp hours before their match against Russia in Moscow. True to form, coach Fernando Hierro has decided to focus on the motivational aspect of the contest. One only needs to see the squad train for a short warm-up session and it’s evident that they can beat any team if they feel like playing hard, so it makes sense that Hierro touches the incentives rather than the tactics.
He was hard on his players after the 2-2 draw against Morocco (“If we play like this on Sunday, we’ll be on a plane back home right after the final whistle”, he said in the post-match press conference), but he’s now using more constructive techniques: on Friday, Carles Puyol and Carlos Marchena, winners of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, made an appearance in Krasnodar to explain to the bunch of players who were not in the 2010 squad how winning the cup changed their lives, especially after they retired.
Nowadays, Puyol is a FIFA ambassador, while Marchena speaks at high schools, motivating kids to stay in school and choose a sport they love. They both had very well-prepared speeches for their meeting with the players, and the message they conveyed was clear: you may not have another chance like this one to achieve something you’ll be remembered for until you leave this world.
Indeed, they will need as much motivation as possible. Defeating the host in Moscow sounds like a tall order, especially if we remember the “friendly” match both teams played last November in Saint Petersburg. Spain started off strong and took a 2-0 lead, but the Russians drew level twice, and even though the match finished 3-3, they could have won it in the final minutes. The stadium only was at 60% of its capacity, but when the team started to put pressure on Spain, the Russian supporters made themselves heard in an astonishing manner.
That was only the appetiser for Sunday. The Luzhniki stadium can host 20,000 more fans than Saint Petersburg’s Kreskovsky, so the place will be loud. The Spanish squad has faced very hostile environments in the last decade, but the Russians could take things to a whole new level.
Coach Hierro will probably introduce a couple of changes to the line-up he used against Morocco. Not in goal, though: in the pre-match press conference, he confirmed that De Gea will start. In fact, Hierro does not have many alternatives. Kepa has only played a grand total of 95 minutes for the national team, and Reina feels some neck pain, so it’s not only that Hierro trusts De Gea, which he does, but also that he’s pretty much stuck with him.
Two players have plenty of options to start tomorrow: Nacho could replace the still not 100% Carvajal, and Koke looks bound to start next to Busquets, which would send Thiago to the bench.
Carvajal does not look his feisty self, and Nacho did very well in the opening match against Portugal. To Phil’s chagrin, Odriozola is not an option, as he’s troubled by one of his right-foot toes and feels pain when he hits the ball. Given that the classy, old-timer Yuri Zhirkov occupies Russia’s left side, Hierro will play it safe with Nacho.
The Spanish coach also felt that the defensive midfield line did not work well against Morocco, and this time he’ll listen to Busquets’ preferences. Last week, the Barcelona midfielder stated that he felt more comfortable playing with Koke – “he’s a more positional player”, meaning that Koke keeps his position more than the rest – and that is what will happen on Sunday.
The final doubt has to do with David Silva. He hasn’t looked his best in this tournament, and the fact that he’s getting close to 600 matches played after 14 years at the top level may have something to do with that. However, he’s by far the most respected player among his teammates – in terms of technique, even more than Iniesta himself – so he’ll start.
Aspas has plenty of chances of joining the team during the second half, but that depends on the score, as well as on how the match unfolds, similarly to Thiago.
Most players openly recognise that they haven’t been consistent in the first three matches, especially in defence, but the fact that they’ve come from behind four times – two against Portugal and another two against Morocco – gives them some confidence. They did not give up and eventually managed to get two results in two very complex matches.
With the international retirement of Iniesta after the tournament – and potentially that of Pique as well –, this World Cup had a feeling of a change of guard before it started. Lopetegui’s bizarre exit increased that sensation another notch. A defeat tomorrow would leave every single squad member with a bitter aftertaste, even if it happens against the host. Just a reminder: Spain have never defeated the organising country of a World Cup, so that’s another spell this team could break.
The players have plenty of reasons to feel motivated: a decent farewell to Iniesta, the incentive to beat Russia, the chance to make history. Hierro has made sure he has pushed all those buttons in the last five days. Now it’s a question of choosing the right line-up and playing the kind of football that has taken this team further than many of us ever imagined.